Laird Norton Company

The Laird Norton Company was started in 1855, when William Harris Laird and his cousins Matthew G. Norton and James Laird Norton founded a small milling operation in the Midwest. Over the next 150 years, the company evolved from milling and manufacturing to timberlands and forest products to building products and distribution, making Laird Norton one of the progenitors of the American forest products industry.

Throughout its 164-year history, the Laird Norton family’s mission has been to stay invested together and to sustain a business purpose for the benefit of its future generations. Based in Seattle, Laird Norton is a seventh-generation family-owned enterprise, making it one of the longest-standing family businesses in the country today.

In 2006, Laird Norton sold its operating company “heirloom,” Lanoga, a multibillion-dollar building supply and distribution company. Lanoga represented the family’s last connection to the forestry industry. Since then, the company has evolved into a diverse enterprise with 500 living members, 400 of whom are shareholders. Today, the family oversees a portfolio of investments concentrated in real estate, wealth management and retail products.

To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Family Business honored 30 outstanding family businesses:

A. Duda & Sons Inc.

The Agnew Family Enterprise

The Biltmore Company

Bush Brothers & Company

The Clemens Family Corporation

Crescent Electric Supply Co. 

Day & Zimmermann

Dot Foods Inc.

The Duchossois Group

E. Ritter & Company

Elkay Manufacturing Company 

Flanagan Foodservice Inc.

Herschend Enterprises

Hussey Seating Company

IDEAL Industries Inc.

Kiolbassa Provision Company

Lloyd Companies

Lundberg Family Farms

Lyles Family Enterprise

MacLean-Fogg Company

Mannington Mills Inc.

Menasha Corporation

Midmark Corporation

Port Blakely

Sheetz Inc.

Vermeer Corporation

Vertex Inc.

W.S. Darley & Co.

Wittwer Hospitality/Boulevard Home

In the years following the Lanoga sale, the family focused its efforts on the development of new business opportunities and the implementation of a family governance structure. To support this effort, the family approved a dual leadership structure that comprises a family president and a CEO. Both are full-time employees and officers of the company, are evaluated annually and are paid market-based salaries.

The family president provides family leadership, chairs the Family Council Committee and coordinates family programs and relations. Allison Parks, a fifth-generation, married-in family member, is now serving her second term as family president.

The CEO is responsible for management of the company and oversight of its business investments. Jeff Vincent was hired as the company’s first non-family CEO in 2001 and continues to serve in that role.

Also following the sale of Lanoga, the family expanded its board of directors to 12 members and, for the first time, brought on independent directors. Today, the board consists of seven family directors and five independent directors, inclusive of designated positions for Parks and Vincent as ex officio members. The board chairman is selected from among the family directors. Debbie Brown, also a fifth-generation, married-in family member, currently serves as board chair.

The board participates in an annual evaluation of its members. The individual directors are elected annually by the family shareholders. All are subject to 12-year term limits and are paid a market-based annual retainer. The family also supports an associate director program that enables NextGen family members to participate as observers on the company board, on committees and on subsidiary boards.

The Family Council Committee is included among Laird Norton’s standing board committees. Twelve family members, representing the various family branches, generations and ownership levels, are selected to serve on the committee. The committee’s charter empowers it to provide leadership on non-investment matters, recommend family policies, develop and oversee member programs, reinforce family values and mission, and plan the family’s annual summit. Members participate in an annual evaluation process, are subject to six-year term limits and are paid a retainer.

Annually, the family hosts a four-day family summit. The event is held at the same time each year at different resorts across the country. The summit is funded by the company, the budget is set by the board, and the event programming and planning are the primary responsibility of the family council. The agenda combines business overviews with a family reunion, a community service project, ownership education, NextGen programming, a teen program and “Camp Three Tree” for children from infancy to age 14. The “recipe” for Laird Norton’s family summit is “one part business, two parts family, and three parts fun.”

The Laird Norton family supports two foundations: The Laird Norton Family Foundation, established in 1940, and the Winona Foundation, founded in 1982. The charitable giving of the family foundation is focused in five program areas of importance to the family: Arts in Education, Climate Change, Human Services, Watershed Stewardship and Sapling Fund (youth development). The Winona Foundation supports community projects in Winona, Minn., which is where the company was started and the community that the family’s ancestors called home. Funding is committed to projects that keep the family history alive in the minds of new generations and to reinforce the importance of giving back to the community that gave so much during the company’s early years.

The family’s two foundations are managed by separate boards staffed by family members, who review grant applications along with foundation staff.

Among the pillars of the Laird Norton family’s success are its focus on frequent and personalized communication, promotion of family engagement, efforts to educate family members on responsible ownership and emphasis on inclusivity and unity. The family has built a culture that embraces continuous change and is committed to developing creative solutions for complex situations.

Family members stay connected and informed via a secure online communications platform. Laird Norton believes family communication is essential to promoting participation and engagement among family members.

Throughout its storied history, the family has embraced change. Among the many changes, however, the one that has resonated most recently was the change in perspective from a “family-owned business” to a “business-owning family.”

Today’s Laird Norton family enterprise is a modern company, one intent on long-term success not just for the present generation, but for many generations to come.

Article categories: 
September/October 2019

Other Related Articles